St. Augustine wrote extensively on the subject of Creation. He writes about it in the last section of Confessions, in several books of City of God, especially Book 11, and in a book called The Literal Interpretation of Genesis. It seems as if he wanted to write a commentary on the Bible, but got stuck at the beginning -- there was just so much to think about, so much to marvel at. In this post, we will consider some of his interesting observations from Book 11(mainly) of City of God.
One of the questions St. Augustine raises concerns how we know that God is the Creator. Even in his time, naturalism was alive and well. He cites a well-known writer, Varro, as believing that "...the soul and the elements of the universe are the true gods," and "...God is the soul of the universe or cosmos...and the cosmos itself is God." (p. 137) A popular philosophy maintained that the universe had always existed, and was perpetually renewing itself. In fact, he even mentions ideas similar to today's theories of the multiverse and evolution. (p. 258, 259) So to answer this question, St. Augustine begins by addressing the issue of how changeable physical things can come from an unchangeable God.
The physical things we observe with our five senses are real, but God did not bring them into being by either literal physical speech or through "apparitions." God speaks in a greater way; he speaks truth: "But He speaks by means of the truth itself, and to all who can hear it with the mind rather that with the body." (p. 206) God has the power, by means of the truth (which he is) to "...[give] life to the dead and [call] things that are not as though they were." (Rom. 4:17) God "speaks" Scripture in the same way. His truth goes directly to our souls, where it can be perceived and believed. Therefore, Gen.1:1, "In the beginning, God created...," is not just a statement of fact using words, but a truth which is understood through the revealing work of the Holy Spirit. We need to get past the idea that physical things must come from physical roots.
St. Augustine also says that nature itself reveals that it was made by God. "...the very order, changes and movements in the universe, the very beauty of form in all that is visible, proclaim, however silently, both that the world as created and also that its Creator could be none other than God..." (p. 209) Nature shows its divine origins by both the beauty it displays, because that beauty bears the stamp of God, who is truly beautiful, and by the way it changes. Today we think of change in evolutionary terms -- things change to survive or better themselves, as it were, but true change comes from movement, and the greatest movement acting on any living thing is the movement of God's love. This is why orthodox Christianity declares that God created out of his goodness. It was the force, so to speak, behind his creation of creatures to love. St Augustine reminds points out that God's declaration in Gen. 1 of all things as "good" does not merely mean that he was congratulating himself on a job well done, but "...it was one and the same to God to see that what He had made was good and to see that it was good to make it." (p. 227) God only does good things and gives good gifts because he is good.
St. Augustine was very intrigued by the problem of creation and time. Much could be written about his discussion of this issue, but I will only mention a few points here. First, he says that time is characterized by movement and change, while eternity is not. Since we know God to be eternal, we know that he exists beyond time. Creation, however, moves and changes, from the love through which it came, as mentioned above, but also because it exists in time, the first of God's creative works. He writes, "Undoubtedly, then, the world was made not in time but together with time." And, "The fact is that the world was made simultaneously with time, if, with creation, motion and change began." (p. 212) He goes into some interesting discussions about time, here in City of God, and also in Confessions. He concludes that since God is outside of time "atemporal," if you will, or existing in "non-time," it really did not take any time for God to create the world, yet he used time in his creative process. Almost as if anticipating our confusion over the issue of the time-stamp word "day" used in Gen. 1, he concludes, "As for these 'days,' it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think -- let alone explain in words -- what they mean." (p. 212) Quite the master of understatement, there!
Today we know that light (the speed of light) is the chronometer of time. In one of his many interesting and almost prophetic statements on this subject, he wrote, "Perhaps there is a material light in the far reaches of the universe which are out of sight. Or it may mean the light from which the sun was afterwards kindled." (p. 213) Billions of years ago, when the light from the Big Bang first blazed, at God's command, into the darkness of nothing, light became the marker both for what God did and when he did it. Through the voice of the Psalmist, God urged us to look to the stars in the night sky to learn about his mighty works, limitless power and enduring love. "The heavens declare the the glory of God..." (Ps. 19:1)
St. Augustine, City of God, abridged ed., trans. by Walsh, et.al. New York, Doubleday, 1958.